Semester in Ghana


Read by Date --> March

Descriptions and commentary regarding aspects of Ghanaian life, vignettes of everyday activities, and the continuing chronicle of my semester abroad appear in my journal entries from March.

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March 1

Happy March!

First comes food. I have settled into a routine of snacks I eat during the second break (2:40pm-3pm). Twice a week--usually Tuesday and Thursday--I indulge in the first edible school cafeteria meals I've ever experienced. The jolof rice is delightfully filling. The other three days, I sample different Ghanaian snacks. These are divisible into two broad categories--packaged and homemade. Packaged munchies are often imported from Lebanon or Egypt, as referenced by the Arabic translation on the wrappers. Of these, my favorite is Magic crackers, which remind me a little of Ritz. Homemade delicacies are distinguishable by their unmarked, clear, plastic trappings. Despite the FDA's probable dissension of their lack of labeling, no one gets sick from them, so I judge them to be safe. Some of these eatables are freshly made pastries--including a peculiar creation called a meat pie--while others resemble the contents of a grocery store's chips aisle. I enjoy most the plantain chips--crispy fried slices of plantain.

After school Monday, I called the orphanage's manager, using the telephone number I received on Saturday. The woman told me that the organization is not set up to accept short-term volunteers, so it would be difficult for me to enact the arrangement I had hoped for. I'm back to square one with regards to community service, I suppose. Monday night brought the heaviest rain I have seen so far. The clouds' heavy artillery on our metal roof woke me up, but I enjoyed switching off my fan and watching the wind whip my curtains and feeling it air out my room. My host father was ready to take the muddy roads as an excuse for my classmate and I to forego the walk we planned, but I was not. The hour-and-a-half left me entirely unscathed, and the morning was cooler than usual, so it was pleasant.

Wednesday's Assembly was odd. My host father overslept and--despite my many reminders--seemed surprised when I informed him of Assembly's 7:30am start time. Needless to say, we were late. Having explained this to the first teacher we encountered, my host dad departed, and I followed said teacher's instructions to fetch a chair and bring it to the Assembly Hall. As I lugged a wooden chair back across campus, a different teacher told the other latecomers to return their chairs and go stand in the Hall. They, though I didn't understand it at the time, invited me to join them in carrying our furniture items a different route, thus avoiding the dissenting teacher's eyes. However, I dutifully followed directions and marched back to my classroom, deposited the chair, and trudged to the Hall. Upon arrival there, I asked yet another teacher whether I should stand inside or under the canopy shading the building's overflow. He told me to go get a chair. By the time I returned, Assembly was nearly over, not that I could hear Announcements, given my vast proximity from the sound system.

Another telling tale about Ghana concerns a large, fenced plot of land we pass on the drive home every day. According to my host father, the absent owner of the grassy field recently complained about squatters inhabiting it. Therefore, last weekend, the government brought in a bulldozer and leveled all of the structures in the lot, save for a primary school that was full of children at the time. Some of the now-homeless had reportedly lived there for three decades. Whether or not they were legal residents, seeing groups of people standing around piles of debris that had been their homes and possessions, all I could think was, "I doubt this would happen in America."

One project I initiated this week was teaching Abigail--the girl who sits next to me, and probably my best friend--how to read music. She is in the school choir, but they learn songs primarily by ear. I started with rhythm and the lengths of various music notes, and I hope to move on to pitches once she gets a little more comfortable with the idea of attaching significance to written notes. She is a quick and eager learner, so the minutes I steal while waiting for teachers are very fun.

My most difficult class is History, so the teacher's Wednesday announcement of a test was not welcome. Even worse, he told us it would be the following Friday, which gave me a whopping two days to memorize six weeks' worth of material about the Western Sudan, West African Coastal Kingdoms, prehistoric inhabitants of Ghana, and sources of Ghanaian history. As such, I entered a state of mild mania, ripping out pages of my notebook to tear into makeshift flashcards. The resulting stress and sleep deficit continued until Thursday afternoon, at which point I finished the flashcards and was, ostensibly, prepared for the exam. But Friday--yesterday--we didn't have the assessment. In fact, the teacher did not even say the word "test" until the end of the period, when he decided to give one on Monday. That was a problem, though, because I will be in Accra for my visa extension on Monday. So, I told him after class and, rather than entertaining my request to make it up on Wednesday, he assured me that he would postpone it altogether. I confess to be, on the whole, unsure of whether I am upset or relieved.

Last night, AFS hosted a gathering of participants and their host families in their Accra office. To get there, my host father and I took tro-tro, or the Ghanaian equivalent of public busses. We drove to, and left the car at, a gas station across from the "station," which was a dusty lot next to a roundabout. People, taxis, and a variety of vans inhabited the space, and my host father shouted to the driver of each 12-, 16-, and 20-seater, asking whether they were bound for Accra. Upon finding one that was, the two of us joined a ten other apathetic passengers in an orange van. The man closest to the one sliding door was an attendant of sorts. Whenever anyone got in or out, he would hop onto the road and, if they were boarding, deposit their one-dollar fare into his bag. He was also responsible for closing the door as the driver pulled back into traffic. The interior of the van was not new, but the black seats were mostly clean, and the open windows provided ample wind to mess up the hair of the only other female rider. This comfortable situation ended, though, when the driver, who deemed the car too empty to be profitable, pulled over in the outskirts of Accra. Following much shouting in Twi, the driver paid for our fares in flagged-down tro-tros that were also headed for the capital. The second tro-tro had 18 people, a slightly larger car, and some bathroom tiles mysteriously covering part of the ceiling. It was not as comfortable or airy; the tro-tro we took home, following the event, was much the same.

The gathering, which delayed my journal entry until this morning, was decent. All of the students in Accra--most of whom, like Jenna and Lance, had to move host families and, thus, ended up in the city--came, and it was wonderful to speak to Jenna in person. I was struck by how developed Accra looked compared to Tema and Ashaiman, and I think I got a taste of what going home will be like. The event itself was dominated by the exchange students speaking about their experiences in Ghana as well as differences they noticed between Ghana and their countries of origin. I mentioned the near impossibility of being heard in an open-air classroom of seventy students. They served hors d'ouevres, which did not stop my host mother from sending Priscilla into my room, while I was trying to sleep, to ask if I needed dinner.

March 2

Upon reflection, I decided to elaborate further on a normality I hinted at yesterday. For many food products, labels are deemed unnecessary here, and many single-serving packages are hand-assembled. Yesterday, I helped my host mother divide a large bag of peanuts into 75 golf ball-sized pieces of merchandise. Each small handful from the original purchase was carefully poured into a foot-long plastic bag--similar to a miniature newspaper bag--and then sealed by tying a knot in the bag. Roughly a quarter-inch above that knot, another was tied. Then, the next handful was poured into the tube, separated from the first by the pair of knots, and the tying process was repeated. The resulting chain can be torn in any of the quarter-inch regions, isolating a customer's desired number of servings. An identical process is used for granulated sugar, cocoa powder, and things of the like. Another use of these long, clear bags is for ice cream--or, at least, what Ghanaians call ice cream. My host mother's store sells Nestle hot chocolate mix and evaporated milk which, due to their printed labels, have defined expiration dates. When such goods are nearly spoilt, the wrappers are abandoned and their contents stirred into a big bucket--indeed the one I use for my showers since the water is off again--with nearly-rotten canned milk. Half-mug portions of this cream-colored (or, in the case of the chocolate, brown) mixture are carefully funneled into individual plastic bags, sealed with a knot, and frozen. Since I only somewhat enjoy the branded, flavored ice cream, I admit to having little inclination to try this homemade, unflavored variety.

Dinner last night was banku with okra stew, the same meal as my first Ghanaian supper (back in January). Several other Ghanaian tribes have different variations of this dish, but all are made with ground corn, ground cassava, and water; the discrepancies arise, I believe, in the order of combination of these ingredients. For banku, corn and water are heated and stirred before an aqueous cassava solution is added. The doughy paste is very tough, so a special device is employed to hold the pot still on the charcoal, thus enabling the continued manhandling of the long, wooden, stirring utensil. The innovation in question is a pair of metal rods with hooks on one end and a connecting rod on the other. The hooks are threaded through the pot's small handles, and the other ends are placed on the ground. From the all-purpose stool the chef sits on, she places her bare feet on the rods and firmly holds them in place. My host mother allowed me to take over briefly, and I found the set-up rather natural, though watching her work was deceptive; she made the stirring look no harder than it would be with Play-Doh. Okra stew is an odd dish, with an enormous amount of okra swimming in a sticky, orange liquid. Like fufu, banku is eaten by detaching a bite-size piece of starch, dipping it in the accompanying stew, and swallowing the mouthful whole--I, however, stubbornly cling on to the American practice of chewing one's food. My host mom repeatedly demonstrates the proper way to eat, though I wish such cultural instructional sessions occurred at a different time, as my appetite is already miniscule by Ghanaian standards.

Moving on from the embarrassingly familiar topic of food, I will revisit the subject of unusual luxuries I miss. One is the education system. We are now halfway through the term, and all I've heard suggests that final exams are entirely unforgiving. However, I'm used to having a multitude of worksheets, essays, and projects, all reinforcing the information we learn. Instead, I have a pile of notebooks (and history flashcards) to cram into my head. To make matters worse, the Ghanaian definition of mastery is memorization, not understanding; recitation, rather than demonstration or explanation (never mind creativity), is the mark of a good student. Not only is this method difficult and devoid of any fun, it is also foreign to me. A second is news. I listen to the radio multiple times a day in the US of A. There is an Accra radio station that plays the BBC World Service round the clock, and that is fun to listen to because that program is on Pittsburgh's NPR station overnight, but what I really miss is the existence of news, particularly--and peculiarly--about the weather. Unpleasant as the current winter sounds, I find myself imagining the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pictures of freezing commuters and snow blankets. Meanwhile, I can count the cumulative number of weather events I've experienced here--as in, rainstorms--on one hand.

March 6

Happy Ghanaian Independence Day! "6th March," as they call it, has the distinction of being the only school holiday in the second trimester. School recommences Monday, and we have five-day weeks until April 12, which is the first day of our month-long break for Easter and between trimesters.

This past Monday, AFS summoned all exchange students to Accra to get our foreign resident ID cards. Another neighbor--not my local contact person--escorted me to Accra. We spent two hours getting there and three returning. Embarking, we walked a ways from the house, boarded a tro-tro to the main station, walked through that parking lot, climbed into another tro-tro to Accra, and walked quite a distance from the bus stop to the AFS office. The main station was reminiscent of a market, except for the higher concentration of parked vans and accordingly wider pathways. Vendors balanced burgeoning trays on their heads and hooked merchandise on their hands. Products ranged from mangoes to Mentos, flags to flashlights, and bagged detergent to boiled eggs--the sight of latter, baking in the African sun, made my tummy squirm. Outside the market, we passed a trio of young girls, asleep on a doormat. One Arab-looking boy chased us, begging for funds and grasping my escort--Ernest's--hands, until he firmly shook him off. Once in Accra, I was treated by a joyful reunion with Leonie and Jenna--the latter of whom I had, admittedly, seen three days earlier. The three of us, together with Lance, whiled away the car ride with memories of our arrival, tales about glimpsing other white people, voiced longings for various junk foods, and general chatter. The government building we went to was nearly empty, and--several fingerprint scanners later--we left with our newly-minted ID cards.

On the way home, we traveled via government bus, flanked by tro-tro trips on both ends. Such busses are like most other things here--oversubscribed and late--but it was clean and not stuffy. Ernest and I had pleasant conversation, and he vowed to talk to the coordinator regarding my community service. On this topic, he reconnected with me yesterday, having been unable to reach the coordinator but speaking with a local contact instead. The message he passed on was confusing; he told me that because I had already started the program I would just have to "keep managing." I, in turn, told him I wanted to speak directly to the coordinator. He later phoned, promising an imminent call from a different high-level staff member; that call never came.

Tuesday saw my return to Chemu Secondary School. As I noted several weeks back, we wear white dresses on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. These are the color, texture, and transparency of cheese cloth, which makes them ideal for collecting the dust that happily accumulates on unpolished wood in open-air classrooms. As such, it only took an hour of school before a teacher commented that my dress was dirty. Fortunately, I have an acceptable excuse because the school has yet to give me my second white uniform. Since neither my attire's cleanliness nor the school undelivered promise is likely to change, I have stopped worrying about this situation almost entirely. Following my host father's profuse apologies for our lateness to Assembly last week, he ensured that we got there on time yesterday.

Last night, my 16-year-old host sister, Sheila, came home from boarding school for the weekend. Far more anticipated than Independence Day--at least in this household--is my host dad's father's funeral, which begins tomorrow and lasts for the remainder of the weekend. Around three months ago, the grandfather died, at 98 years of age. That fact is significant because the older the mourned person was, the bigger the bonanza at his or her death. Firstly, my host father is overseeing the construction of a new house in his village because his late father's one is not good enough for the festivities. Secondly, my host mother has traveled to Accra on innumerable days to buy stuff, including cooking pots big enough for me to sit in, charcoal stoves large enough for those pots, boxes of dishes for serving, and even some items with uses not related to food preparation! Thirdly, my host siblings are home for the next few days--Richard to attend the funeral and Sheila to supervise the store while her seniors are in the village.

This weekend, therefore, is a taste of what I expect Easter break will be like; Sheila will be home for a month then. As a result of her apparent craziness when we visited her at school, I was unsure of how comfortable it would be to live together. However, I have been pleasantly surprised that she, for the most part, respects my boundaries and, in particular, my sovereignty of my bedroom. One of my chief inquiries preceding her arrival had been in regards to where she would be sleeping. In light of Ghanaian customs, this question was silly, not to mention unanswerable. It prompted my host dad to give a long-winded description of all the rooms on the compound and each one's history of dwellers. In this country, individuals rarely stake ownership claims for a certain room or area. Instead, the home is everyone's to sleep, eat, and undress in. Additionally, the "home" means the house, driveway, and store. For residences that are not walled compounds, this turf encompasses the land surrounding the house as well as the nearest open sewer (for urination). At home, women wear cloths wrapped like towels, men go shirtless, and children run around stark naked. I can handle other members of my host family doing such things, but I prefer to maintain more privacy. Thus, I appreciate my room remaining periodically off-limits to visitors. Priscilla and my host parents seem to understand this, and I'm glad that Sheila recognizes it too--although, upon my request for her to wait while I changed, she chuckled and said, "Are you shy about me?!"

This morning we were blessed with another heavy rainfall, and--since the water is off--I snapped a picture of the buckets and basins lined up, anxious to catch the run-off from the roof. My host family replenishes their storage drums with purchased water, trucked from Tema, but every drop caught needn't be bought.

March 10

I never fail to be impressed by the human capacity to forget the one thing one planned to do in an otherwise unscheduled day. Evidently, I was subject to that weakness yesterday, as I did not remember to journal.

One of this long, long weekend's few sources of entertainment was a goat in the driveway. This poor creature's slaughter was delayed because it arrived at the house after the other funeral food had been taken to the village. Instead of adorning a party-goer's plate this weekend, it amused us with its antics. Tied to a post of the clothes line, it had only a two-yard radius in which to perform, but it wowed us nonetheless. The highlights were its stunts involving my host father's sedan, the nose of which was parked in the goat's territory. Under the midday sun, he wormed himself under the little car. Although he is not two feet tall at the shoulder, this was quite the feat, especially considering his stubby little horns, which he was forced to hold at an uncomfortable angle, in order to keep his head in the shade. In addition to shade, he apparently sought adventure. This need he satisfied by scrambling onto the hood of the automobile, and then onto the roof. Sitting on his throne, he bleated, but whether it was in triumph or fear, I know not. Unfortunately, there was little we could do to get him off the car, so we waited until he developed the will--or nerve--to climb down.

A second source of enjoyment was arranging the store shelves, which Sheila let me do, following some minor protest about it being too difficult. Contenting herself to bring me a plastic chair in place of the wooden stool I fetched, she allowed me to repack many of the blue cubbies that were visible in the initial picture of the store. The products kept in this area supply the displays in the front; once a roll of bags of powdered milk or baby food is depleted, the stock in the cubbies is drawn from to replenish the visible goods near the gate the customers stand at. Reorganizing these haphazardly stuffed rolls made me appreciate the incredible slipperiness of wrappers, and the frustration from falling piles was enough to make this perfectionist abandon some color- and purpose-coding attempts. More gratifying was stacking the unpackaged bars of soap, which happily braced one another. Lunch followed this endeavor, and I'm not sure my hands have ever been as sudsy as they were with that washing.

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I ate waakye for lunch. According to my host father, this dish has a long preparation process, so it is more often bought than cooked. As such, we acquired the delicacy from nearby fast food stands, which join "provisions stores" (such as my host mother's), hair salons (spelled "saloons" here--makes me laugh every time), and tailoring shops in the group of popular, mother-owned establishments. Similar to other members of this group, fast food stands are usually constructed next to the home. They sport hand-painted, plywood signs, advertising available dishes with detailed drawings of fully-loaded plates. From a sweating, apron-clad woman, my host sister bought me the smallest increment of waakye offered, together with three times the usual undressed coleslaw portion and a dollop of greasy spaghetti. Waakye--pronounced wah-cheh--is rice with mashed soy (I think) beans. I do not know much about the preparation, but the rice somehow absorbs the reddish brown color from the beans. Lastly, I have learned--thanks to my rather scatterbrained biology teacher--that three-day-old waakye ferments, so one's sobriety is best maintained by eating it fresh. The chef packs the meal in a pair of clean leaves that, according to my host mother, have notable medicinal qualities. I find it unlikely, though, that any such chemicals leeched into my lunch as it sat in the trappings for the five-minute walk from the stand to the house. Once extracted from its cocoon, the food is tasty, especially after a tiresome morning.

Sheila passed on my host mother's instruction to not wear my newest dress to church. The batik is my personal favorite--so far--yet culturally it is considered too "common" for special occasions; "batik" in Ghanaian English is "tye-dye." This particular cloth was handmade in a nearby village, and my host mother bought the fabric from a vendor for about two dollars. The dye-ing process, according to the seller, takes two or three days.

The preacher at this Sunday's Youth Service is a headmistress or housemistress at some boarding school, I believe. The majority of her sermon dealt with detailed descriptions of un-Christian habits of boarding school pupils. This theme could also be attributed to the high proportion of high school students who, like Sheila, were home for midterm break. Regardless of its cause, this message had little resonance for me, since my opportunities to steal bunkmates' junk food are few and far between. The music before her speech was nice, but after forty-five minutes of irrelevant admonishments, I was ready to go home.

The only excuse I will make for my journal delinquency yesterday is that I commenced my summer homework. I discovered that my eternally prepared math teacher keeps the pre-AP Calculus assignments online year-round, as I suspected she might. While other teachers posted scant letters with reading lists, or simply directed students to email them, my future Calculus (and present Elementary Functions) teacher's site boasts six PDFs of textbook sections, accompanied by copious reading comprehension questions and assigned exercises. After dutifully downloading these documents, I delved into the first cognitive--as opposed to behavioral--education I have experienced in months.

My host mother came home last night. Sheila went back to school today, and Richard left also. My host father has yet to return from his village; he keeps revising the timing of his promised arrival, postponing his reappearance. Priscilla explained that it damages a person's reputation if he or she leaves too hastily after a family member's funeral. Meanwhile, he has arranged for one of the church members--a taxi driver by trade--to take me to and from school. That worked fine today.

This evening, my host mother called me outside because it was "cold" in advance of the present thunderstorm. The thermometer in the store read 28°C (low 80s Fahrenheit), but compared to relentless 90s it felt cool. Because Priscilla and her mom both have chemically treated hair, they wear plastic bags on their heads in the rain. The humor of this sight is yet another perk to rain showers.

March 14

Happy Pi Day! Since Ghanaians are on the day-month-year system, March 14 is not a big deal for them, so I celebrated the holiday by explaining to my class prefect the significance of 3/14 as the first few digits of the mathematical number pi (3.14159...).

Tuesday I got the call that was supposed to come a week earlier. A different AFS staff member, reached through Ernest, phoned me about my community service project (or heretofore lack thereof). I told him what I was interested in, and he agreed to try to arrange something. Tuesday afternoon, my host father returned from his village. He said little regarding the funeral, but it sounds as though it went well.

Wednesday I had an interesting conversation with Baaba, my classmate, regarding the social differences between American and Ghanaian high schools. We concluded that the excessive competition among American schoolgirls is mostly absent here. Also, even though rifts between people arise from time to time, Ghanaian girls seem not to take sides in arguments, and that is what often prompts conflict expansion in the USA.

One of Thursday's momentous occasions was the consumption of a Ghanaian hot dog, or "sausage roll." Although Western-style sandwich bread is available, it is not used for buns and bakery items. Instead, a kind of yellow, dense, pastry dough is found on meat pies, hot dogs, etc. This dough is not sweet and does not have yeast; it is flaky and gets its color from margarine and egg, I believe. The meat of the hot dog was only three inches long, and the dough wrapped around it was of similar length. I found it quite tasty.

One question for the group: How do Ghanaian children spend time outside school?

Ghanaian kids, as far as I can tell, spend most of their time studying and helping their parents--as in, fetching various things and following orders for other such chores. Grace spends a sizable part of her day simply running to her mother when she calls, running to the store when a customer calls, and running back to whatever she had been cooking or cleaning before being called. After returning home, Priscilla does a fair bit of this too, but I can imagine that a daughter in a house without a Grace-like person would spend all post-school time on her feet. In addition, I know that school attendance drops significantly when the tap is not flowing and children must search for water to bring home, suggesting that such "household responsibilities" fall to the offspring. Between these errands, students study and complete homework assignments. Serious pupils in my year are already in high-gear WASSCE--end-of-high school exam--preparation mode. This means countless dull textbooks and practice books full of former WASSCE questions. These books pile on top of regular homework and test review, keeping kids very busy (though maybe not intellectually stimulated).

March 16

Yesterday morning, I attended an hour of a Ghanaian funeral. A 32-year-old church member died a little while ago, and the church hosted the service. Two hundred and fifty people filled the sanctuary to hear prewritten tributes by the husband, children (read by an older man), church staff, and Women’s Ministries organization. Three-quarters of the crowd donned black and red, with splotches of brown and orange here and there. Top-notch Ghanaian fabric is used for memorial services, and I saw embossed patterns on black apparel, in addition to multicolor designs. Most women wore cabas and slits, though a few wore dresses, particularly the younger attendees. All married females tied cloths over their hair, color-coordinated with their outfits. Among men, Western-style shirts were interspersed with the traditional garment—a large amount of cloth draped over one shoulder and tucked under the opposite arm. The fourth quarter of the gathered people were representatives from the Women’s Ministry (“JOY: Jesus, Others, You”), who were distinguished by their attire. These ladies sported white shirts—some featuring Ministry logos and others plain—and blue skirts that can only be compared to nurse’s scrubs. The majority of the room’s sniffs and hanky action came from this quadrant. Still, some were less engrossed in the speeches; I noticed one mother fumbling with her fussy infant’s bottle before giving up and letting him nurse. The speakers used the podium on the altar, which, unlike my seat two-thirds of the way back, had a stellar view of the open casket. The corpse was attended by four women—one on each corner of her raised coffin—including her mother. Following the tributes, the pastor spoke about the need to better appreciate people before they died. I left partway through his message. Overall, the event provided me considerable insight, and I am glad I went.

In the evening, I ate a sandwich for the first time in two months. Buying and preparing vegetables—tomatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers—was easy, but the meat was another story. This quest brought me to my first “cold store,” where the owner informed me that the smallest size of chicken flesh I could buy was half the animal; I’m glad I expressed interest in poultry, not beef! She proceeded to fetch the product from a freezer in a room that was blank, save for two such appliances. (From the other one, my host sister bought me a chocolate-covered ice cream popsicle, which was not nearly as tasty as it sounds.) Picking some shards of ice off of it, the woman barehandedly carried the frozen bird to a swatch of torn cardboard, where she hacked a hunk of fat off using a rusty cutlass that Priscilla assured me is usually saved for weeding. Having beheld such nonexistent sanitation measures, I was no longer sad that cooked meat is unavailable for purchase; I do not need food poisoning. Bringing our spoils home, I modeled the American method of slicing cucumbers, and then we set to work on the chicken. Using the machete and my hands, I removed the skin and as much fat as I could. After that, I tore small shards of flesh off the bones, which we proceeded to boil until thoroughly germless. Priscilla and my host father both seemed to enjoy the food, and I appreciated a lightweight dinner for once.

Following yesterday evening’s burial (of the 32-year-old and which I did not attend), the majority of the congregation wore “thanksgiving” colors to church today. This cloth is white with black geometric designs, which are often organized into wide horizontal bands and separated by white parts. It has a crumpled texture, made of tiny creases all over. According to custom, such attire must be worn the first Sunday after a burial, in order to thank God for his blessings during the grieving and memorial services.

This morning, a man I vaguely recognized as someone Sheila talked to last Sunday tried to shake my hand as I arrived at church. I consider unwanted physical contact with strangers—especially men in their early twenties—to be justification for rudeness, so I pretended not to have noticed him. He then called “obruni,” and I turned and curtly answered that I was fine. To my dismay, he visited the house this evening, clearly a friend of my host father’s, and he asked why I had not shaken his hand. Some quick thinking produced the response, “In my culture, we don’t usually touch people we don’t know,” which was accepted much more readily than I would expect in a country without as many Muslims as Ghana.

March 21

To mix it up a bit, I will begin the school week retrospection with a few of the past days’ musings. There are a number of common American behaviors that Ghanaians simply do not partake in. These include leisure reading, heeding clocks, and multitasking while eating. Peers usually refer to my habit of reading novels as “learning,” which in Ghana means studying. Non-textbook literatures are universally called “storybooks,” and students avoid storybooks unless required to read them for English class. Even there, a distinction is drawn between English Language—a compulsory reading comprehension and grammar class, concerned mostly with passages and accompanying questions—and Literature—an elective that conflicts with my Elective Math class. Clocks join fiction on the shelf of unused things. None of my host family members use alarm clocks. I have yet to see one prominent, reliable timepiece in Chemu. According to the wall decoration in the library, it is always 12:05pm. Few of the numerous student wristwatches agree, and cell phones in school are forbidden. In conclusion, I am glad the school bells were turned back on, following a week-long absence. Lastly, Ghanaians hold food consumption as sacred periods of time. For example, my host father asked a store customer to return later because he was having dinner and my host mother was occupied. If he sees that I am snacking, the fervent evangelist in the seat in front of mine takes his dog-eared bible off my desk and turns back around. No one walks and eats, and the only typical conversation is the customary invitation of those around to join the eater. I have yet to be too embarrassed by the flouting of one of these social norms, but it is interesting to see a country lacking three essential parts of Western culture.

Next, I will highlight a pair of appreciated differences regarding school. For starters (and main dishes and snacks), the cafeteria is always open. The so-called “Canteen” is a grubby building with wooden tables and benches, and food sellers—nearly identical to those outside school walls—are entrepreneurial enterprises scattered in and around the shelter. The vendors take home their profits, so they ask few questions when hungry pupils show up during class periods. This is great for free periods when I get bored of the library. Secondly, I enjoy the breeze we get through our glassless windows. Although Africa is hot, Tema’s proximity to the ocean and few tall buildings make it ideal to receive all the wind the Atlantic has to offer. I am usually overheated, but the periodic gusts of cool air are enough to make our crowded classroom almost comfortable.

On Tuesday’s afternoon commute, my host father asked me whether I would enjoy living in Ghana. It should be noted that his livelihood is made off fixing motors from foreign-owned factories. Thus, I expect his interest in this country’s livability—especially for an American—to be great. Would I, he asked, ever consider moving to Ghana, or would I move here if my husband’s career brought us here? I noted the education system and how I would be appalled to have my children beaten, yet I would not send them to any of the expatriate-dominated schools where caning is forbidden.

Wednesday’s English class took place in a different classroom than usual. Located at the other end of our block, this one was equipped with power outlets and four light bulbs, as compared to our one. I believe its position closer to the modern facilities on campus—computer lab, offices, etc.—accounted for its enhanced electrical supply. The teacher’s lesson plans required use of a stereo, necessitating our move. Usually, this futuristic classroom is reserved for the Home Economics students, whose use of sewing machines and other appliances makes power outlets a must. We lowly General Arts kids are reduced to our humble white-board and notebooks. Indeed, teachers demand a fee for all photocopied tests, and our inordinately high school fees mysteriously pay for no school supplies, although the ladies in the Canteen will gladly sell anything you need.

One class I do not take is Agricultural Science, since Chemu is currently lacking a qualified teacher for the post. However, on Thursday, I got a taste of the material covered in this course. Because Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Agricultural Science are all examined together as “Integrated Science,” the Biology teacher reviewed a little Agricultural Science, in hopes that it might improve our performance on our finals. According to her, the two areas of most importance are the vocabulary terms for various animals in two stages of life: pregnancy and death. I learned that when with child, chickens are “in-lays,” pigs are “in-pigs,” cows are “in-calves,” and goats are “in-kids.” I admit the definitions of pork and beef came as a review.

Sunday, Ernest visited and named two nearby schools that I might teach at during Easter break, as a community service project. Following a Monday visit by him alone, the two of us met with the principal of one school today. Leads International School (“International” means little here; it’s just an advertisement.), similar to a few other schools, offers Holiday Classes, or the Ghanaian equivalent of Summer School. Aimed mostly at final-year students, who are about to take WASSCE, these classes convene daily during school vacation. Class size at Leads is approximately twenty, and each class period is 90 minutes. I will learn more about how many classes I will teach when the schedule comes out next Friday. The circumstances seem promising, and I am hopeful that this project will work out.

Today’s multipart question is about neighborhood/street life: “What are typical family sizes? How are families typically organized? Is the goal for both parents to work? Are there—and, if so, what are popular—leisure activities?”

It is difficult to estimate family size because the neighborhood/street is a blur of children. My best guess is that each household has 2-4 adults and 4-6 kids. Often I see two women and a man, but I expect the picture changes once all the harbor laborers return home. It appears that families keep traditional gender-based structures, with mothers cooking, cleaning, and selling, while the men work outside the home. Most inhabited structures have some kind of store out front, whether it sells provisions, harvested fruits and vegetables, electrical equipment, prepared food, shoes, services (tailors, bars, prepaid electricity credit etc.) or wholesale to supply other stores. These shops and stands are run almost exclusively by women, and street vendors (those who sell to drivers stuck in traffic) are majority female, too. Thus, it seems that both parents do ideally work. Unfortunately, I have less insight into common jobs for males. Based solely on observation, I would say that hassling the “obruni” is the leisure activity of choice for children. Most families do not own cars, so travel is limited. Visiting and hosting family and friends is probably the main source of fun.

March 23

Yesterday, I visited Jenna, the other American girl on my program. Fannie and Leonie, the Belgian and German in Koforidua, spent Friday and Saturday nights with Jenna’s host family, and I joined the trio on their Saturday escapades. Jenna lives southwest of Accra, in a beachside town called Kokrobite. Ernest had an AFS meeting in Accra anyhow, so we traveled together. The assortment of tro-tros and taxis this journey required were all fine and mostly unremarkable.

Reaching her host family’s extravagant (relatively-speaking) house at 10:15am, Jenna greeted me with tantalizing kitchen smells of pancakes. One of the items in her mother’s care package had been boxes of pancake mix. The two hotcakes she prepared for me wiped out the end of her supply, but she assured me that her mother was sending more boxes. The breakfast was marvelous, and the four of us passed the time sharing our funniest tidbits from the past ten weeks.

We suited and lathered up for a sunny day at the beach, but the merciless noon-day UV was enough to redden our shoulders, despite our SPF 70. The 15- or 20-minute walk was not shaded, and Kokrobite’s residents’ calls to us were almost as relentless as the sun’s rays. Having finally escaped the village and its inhabitants, we entered the last leg of the route. At one point, this trampled path probably offered relief from loose sand on either side; now however, it is merely a way to avoid stepping in the mountains of trash flanking it. Composed mostly of plastic bags, this sea of garbage was impressive in size and smell. Enduring the fumes of a fire consuming some of the waste, we came into view of the real ocean. Although Jenna had promised the presence of innumerable white people, we counted only seven foreigners on our shoreline hike, including the four in our group. We chose a patch of sand that was only home to a few other souls because the other three were wearing bikinis under their dresses, and we were irritated with the amount of attention we gathered with our clothes on, let alone without. Together with us were a couple apparently-asleep young men on outdoor tables at a beachside restaurant (As such businesses lined the shore, evading this situation was virtually impossible.), four mostly-naked 10-year-old boys playing in the surf (again, pretty unavoidable), and the horseback patrollers that clopped by every couple minutes.

As with most beaches, there was an embankment—presumably marking the height of high tide—that partially obstructed the sight line between the lower, sloped sand and the higher, flatter ground. Leonie, Jenna, and I set up shop on the lower part, but Fannie decided (with little explanation) to sunbathe on the embankment, such that our towels were merely feet apart, yet we could only see her legs, unless we stood up. Then, Leonie and Jenna went to enjoy the Atlantic, taking care to swim in a pair. I had gotten a gut feeling as we arrived at our spot that today was not the day for me to go swimming, so I stayed on land with our bags, watching the two girls from my seat on our beach towels. I called to Fannie to invite her to join me and got no response. After a few minutes, I turned around, considering whether I should extend a more hearty invitation, but the thought was soon wiped from my mind. A Ghanaian man walked over to beside the white legs and picked up a leather bag from the ground. He was maybe thirty years old and six feet tall; his hair was long enough to make a defined curl, he wore a dark shirt and orange swim trunks, and his face was rectangular. I watched him leisurely approach where I knew Fannie’s head to be, and I half-guessed he was delivering her bag to her. But, of course, he wasn’t. His slow, confident gait was probably what deceived me, and it wasn’t until he picked up the bag at Fannie’s shoulder and started to walk away that I screamed. Once Fannie stirred, he began to run, skirting the fence with his stolen satchels before disappearing through a nearby access path to the beach.

There was no real chase; Fannie (as she later told me) had been almost asleep, the mounted patroller did not understand our wild gestures in time, and I was terrified that an accomplice was close by, intending to steal the three bags I was guarding. I beckoned to Jenna and Leonie, who came. Jenna and I stayed with the remaining property and watched a group of Ghanaians gather around Fannie and Leonie, who were standing at the mouth of the access path. By the time Jenna and I decided to pack up and join the others, it was pretty clear that nothing could be done; the police station would have little chance of retrieving any of Fannie’s stuff, so there was little point in reporting it. (We passed the Kokrobite Police Station later, on the walk back to Jenna’s house, but elected to pass it by.) The four of us sat down in an empty restaurant and bought four bottles of water from the woman there. As she had left her ATM card, etc. in Jenna’s room, Fannie did not need to make urgent cancellation calls. Her primary loss was her phone, a very nice smartphone that she had bought in Ghana for $100, which contained all her pictures, her methods for contacting her parents, and a weight loss application into which she had entered a lot of calorie and physical activity information. She used the remaining credit on Jenna’s phone to call her Belgian parents. Meanwhile, Leonie and Jenna jointly concluded that the theft was partly due to Fannie’s insistence on independence and carelessness with her belongings. I told them this blame game was unhelpful, and they did not mention this analysis to Fannie, though they continued to discuss it during her brief absences throughout the rest of the day.

After the call to Belgium finished, the four of us returned to Jenna’s house, rinsed the sand off our bodies, and received directions to a mall next-door to Jenna’s host father’s workplace, where we met him.

At the mall, we indulged in a pizza and a chicken sandwich. I accidentally removed most of the cheese from my slices, though I intentionally left it off, fearing that it might be problematic after two dairy-free months. We wandered around the mall, which was more like a Target than anything else, and bought popcorn on our way out. Jenna’s host father drove us to the AFS office, where I disembarked to meet Ernest. Unsurprisingly, his meeting ended an hour late—having started an hour-and-a-half late—and he, I, and some other Tema residents from the meeting traveled home together. I got back to the Ofoedas at 9pm.

To close, I will briefly discuss a few of Ghanaian English’s deviations from American English. I have identified two main causes of these differences, namely the influences from Twi (and other Ghanaian languages, most of which have similar grammatical rules) and Ghana’s social and cultural values. Firstly, politeness is much simpler here; one must simply say “please” before any question, answer, or command. For example, if a teacher is in danger of becoming angry, students usually begin all answers with “please, Sir,” such that “it is a rectangle” becomes “please, Sir, it is a rectangle.” Thus, “please” replaces all of our phrases like “could you,” “would you mind,” “excuse me,” etc. This phenomenon almost certainly originates from Twi, in which politeness is achieved by saying “mepa wo cho”—which means “please” and is usually shortened to “mpaacho”—before sentences. In a related vein, much fewer distinctions are made when asking someone to wait for you. Here, “I’m coming” suffices for our “I’ll be back,” “I’ll see you soon,” “I’ll be there in a while,” “I’m leaving now,” “I’m on my way,” and so on. This took some getting used to because “I’m coming” in my American family means, “I’m walking down the stairs as we speak.” Again, there is a Twi equivalent to this phrase: “me eba.” However, I believe this difference is really a reflection of the overall imprecision, especially as it relates to ETAs.

March 28

This week saw three instances of rain! Drizzles Monday and Tuesday mornings were forgotten in a Thursday night downpour. Craters in the roads filled with muddy water, which happily sloshed onto the sides of cars unfortunate enough to be driven through them. Also, since streets are made of rocky dirt, the ride was even bumpier, as my host father could not see (and avoid) the protruding stones hidden by the puddles. But cool morning temperatures are worth all of the jostling and head-bobbling that accompanies post-rainstorm vehicle rides. This morning’s weather was nothing short of pleasant although the heat picked back up—as it always does—early this afternoon.

Wednesday was a roller coaster of a day. My first two classes after Assembly were Core, followed by Advanced, Math. Both of these teachers greeted us with big tests and not enough time to finish them. Last period I had a history test, which I had been studying for all week. After the nightmarish math tests, I was not looking forward to this assessment. To my surprise, it was fine. As with most history tests, we were given one essay question; the goal was to include as many names, dates, and examples as possible. I remembered enough to be scribbling throughout the exam period.

My host father decided Wednesday that it would be okay for me to walk alone on the main road, so I did that yesterday and today. Since I walk briskly alone, it is a solid thirty minutes of physical activity.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand, my Internet has stopped working. I believe there must have been a 60-day initial period for my modem, and now that that has ended, the device wants me to put money on it. However, my particular software seems to be unable to accept prepaid credit codes I enter, so now it’s pretty much useless.

March 30

I woke yesterday to noisy bleating in the driveway. At first, I figured Priscilla was wrestling the goat outside to his favorite plant to munch, but that was not the case. Rather, the animal was being slaughtered. I realized this when I glimpsed my host dad’s fist, the goat’s scrambling hind legs, and a machete peeking out from behind the doghouse in the garden plot. Mercifully, the little shed obscured the majority of the scene, and I kept my eyes firmly directed elsewhere for the rest of the morning. I was not surprised at this occurrence; Priscilla has been promising it for some time. Nonetheless, murdering goats is not what most Americans do in their flowerbeds at six o’clock on Saturday mornings.

Later, I visited the Eastern Hemisphere. My host city’s longitude is 0°, although both my house and school are in the western half. Fixing my modem required a trip to the network provider’s shop, and the only one with a staff who bothers to work on the weekends is located in the eastern part of Tema. When my host father mentioned our crossover, I didn’t understand him. I needed a couple seconds to translate “Green Witch Merry Dion” to “Prime Meridian” (or “Greenwich Meridian”). On a different note, I have realized that life in a developing country is characterized, in part, by the mixture of traditional and modern technologies. First-world customs and conveniences are adopted not out of necessity, but because they are believed to be paths to greener pastures. This situation naturally results in mild misuse and misunderstanding of some imported goods, especially by the illiterate majority, of which Grace and my host mother are members. For instance, the ceiling fans in the house are controlled by dials with notches for various settings, but the engraved numbers mean little to my host mom, who simply adjusts the level by means of trial and error. Similarly, I taught Priscilla how to decode the diagrams indicating which knob corresponds to which burner on the stove (which, admittedly, is only used when charcoal cooking is foregone for the sake of convenience or time).

Today’s question is “Can you explain more about the role of music in daily and church life?”

Music, particularly singing, is an indispensable part of life here. Grace and my host mother sing worship songs in Twi while washing dishes, cooking dinner, and strolling around the house. Priscilla parrots ballads from Disney Channel movies she watches. My host father manages to belt along to his barely-functional car radio on my way to school. Radio stations play almost exclusively music, except on Sundays, when they feature Christian homilies and scripture readings. Whenever I use the bathroom in the evening, I am greeted by hymns wafting out of a nearby church. Although instruments are sometimes employed, African vocal cords are strong enough without them. The adult service at my host family’s parish has a drum set and keyboard, but the youth congregation is a cappella. One or more people appoint themselves soloists in praise music, and they improvise in the silence between the chorus’ phrases. Songs are sung chiefly in a call-and-response pattern because they are often initiated during prayers, when everyone’s eyes are closed. The leader starts the opening line of the tune, and the audience joins in.